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My first curry

It feels like eons ago that I was a new resident at the International Islamic University Girls’ Hostel in the fall of 1991. I was the only faculty member at the hostel, and special permissions had to be acquired for me. Living in a hostel in a city far from my comfortable middle-class family was a strange practice for women of my class. Why would I choose to do this? How could my family countenance this? People were mystified.

But my parents wanted me to chase my dreams, and they also wanted me to have financial independence.

The hostel was not comfortable. It wasn’t always clean. I remember being shocked by the communal bathroom on my first day there. I didn’t have a private room at first; I shared one with people who weren’t terribly happy about sharing a room, and who thought I was rather spoiled (which I was). They laughed about how pale I looked when my mommy and daddy dropped me off, and how I’d vomited for nerves en route to the hostel.

And there I was, in Islamabad, to teach English to IIU students.

This was a new existence. If you wanted something, you had to get it. If you wanted it done, you had to do it yourself. I was the youngest child of a middle-class doctor; I attended the best and most expensive girls’ school in Lahore. We were frugal, but we were insulated from everyday life. And then I was out there, by choice, dealing by myself with sniping colleagues, catty students, hostel staff, bus drivers, taxi-drivers, shopkeepers, cat-callers …

I was often hungry. Hostel food wasn’t good, and it wasn’t enough. But I was no cook. I never actually learned as a girl. I took a rubbish class with some housewife, and watched as she cooked dishes in her kitchen, but I was not an interested learner.

I was always cold; for a Lahore-raised girl, Islamabad by the hills was often freezing. We didn’t really have winter-appropriate clothing, now that I think about it. And no buildings were insulated, ever. Always drafty. So I got myself one of those tiny, terribly unsafe gas heaters, a rickety little metal thing – I can’t even find pictures of it online anymore. But it was a lifesaver on those cold mornings when I shivered through fajr.

I don’t know who, but somebody taught me I could flip the heater on its back and it would then be a little stove. On this little stove, I balanced a small saucepan. Poured a little oil into the pan, and chopped an onion and a tomato into it. Cooked it for a few minutes, grabbed a roti from the hostel kitchen, and this was my dinner.

How delicious that simple onion-tomato curry was to me.

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